Andres Serrano - Photographs New York Monday, April 4, 2016 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Stux Gallery, New York
    Harry Lunn Jr., Washington D.C.

  • Exhibited

    Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 23 June - 29 August 1993

  • Literature

    Atkins, "Stream of Conscience", The Village Voice, 30 May 1989, vol. 34, no. 22, pp. 87-88
    Heartney, "Andres Serrano: Challenging Complacency," Latin American Art, Winter, 1990, pp. 37-39
    Serrano, A History of Sex, Milan: Photology, 1998, p. 6
    Grosenick and Riemschneider, Art at the Turn of the Millennium, p. 461
    Wallis, Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America, n.p.

  • Catalogue Essay

    Oscillating between avant-grade provocateur and traditional Christian iconographer, Andres Serrano defies categorization. Though raised as a Catholic, in his youth he began to question the Church’s teachings and what he saw as an overly rigid orthodoxy. Conflicted in faith, well versed in Christian iconography and influenced by Renaissance paintings, Serrano turned to photography as a means of challenging the sacred and in doing so, explore his own relationship with the complex ideologies of contemporary culture. No work from his career elucidates this exploration more than Piss Christ, 1987.
    With a title that immediately informs us, it is at once visually captivating and discomforting: a powerfully lit golden crucifix, slightly askew, emerges from profuse, sumptuous oranges and reds. Illuminated, infinitesimal air bubbles populate the foreground, almost as if instead of viewing a photograph, our eyes are looking directly through the Plexiglas that holds its subject. Serrano’s chosen plastic Christ figurine eschews an emphasis on the frailty of human flesh, and instead the solid, molded form functions as an icon, interrogating the rigidity of belief through its profane baptism.

    Technically stunning and conceptually provocative Piss Christ’s place in the history of photography was cemented at its inception, however, it is perhaps the surrounding controversy that has elevated the work to an iconic status as a globally recognized image. In 1989 Piss Christ ignited the Culture Wars when the American Family Association began a dramatic protest of the photograph's funding through the National Endowment for Arts (NEA), which via the Southern Center for Contemporary Art, had awarded Serrano $15,000. Preceding the protest, Piss Christ had debuted at Stux Gallery in New York and toured in the exhibition Awards in the Visual Arts 7 to LACMA, the Carnegie-Mellon University Art Gallery, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts without incident. However, the controversy bloomed in the spring of 1989 expanding to include other artists, such as Robert Mapplethorpe who similarly presented classical subjects through a contemporary lens, and whose seminal exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, was cancelled at the Corcoran Gallery.

    Serrano’s unapologetically profane and materialistically honest title, married with photography’s unshakable status as evidence leaves little deniability in regards to its making, and the palpable sense that, as Roland Barthes describes, “this has been.” Since its inception, photography has been questioned for potential indecency in ways that other mediums perhaps have not, and during the Culture Wars Serrano and Mapplethorpe bore the brunt of vitriolic criticism. Their perceived offenses, too real; their work an enduring symbol of the tension between artistic freedom and religious and cultural taboo.

    The present lot originated from Stux Gallery and was purchased by the current owner from the famed photographs gallerist and dealer Harry Lunn. In addition to handling works by classic greats like Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Lunn also championed cutting-edge artists such as Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Pierre et Giles. Within this catalogue, his vision is also seen in Mapplethorpe’s Z Portfolio (lot 251), one of three controversial but important portfolios by the artist, which Lunn published.


Piss Christ

Dye destruction print, face-mounted to Plexiglas.
40 x 30 in. (101.6 x 76.2 cm)
Signed, titled and numbered 9/10 in pencil on the verso.

$100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for $125,000

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New York Auction 4 April 2016